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black college students
Credit: The Education Trust

It seems it really does matter what college you go to, especially if you’re black.

Colleges that say they can’t improve graduation rates for their black students because they enroll too many poor students or too many who are academically unprepared are sometimes just making excuses, a new report says.

For example, Middle Tennessee State University and Eastern Michigan University each enroll between 15,000 and 20,000 students, have the same median SAT scores, and have roughly equal percentages of students who receive Pell grants, which go to low-income students. At Middle Tennessee, 46 percent of black students graduate within six years, virtually the same rate as the school’s white students. But at Eastern Michigan, only 20 percent of black students graduate within six years and there’s a 25-percentage-point gap with white students.

“It’s really about individual institutional choices and what they are willing to do,” said Andrew Nichols, co-author of the new report, A Look at Black Success, and director of higher education research at The Education Trust. “Far too often, leaders tend to excuse poor outcomes because they’re serving a large number of low-income students of color who are less prepared academically.”

“Far too often, leaders tend to excuse poor outcomes because they’re serving a large number of low-income students of color who are less prepared academically.”

More than a quarter of colleges and universities have black-white graduation gaps higher than 20 percentage points, but the data also show that improvement is possible, Nichols said. Among the 676 institutions analyzed, 22 percent had a black-white graduation gap of less than 5 percentage points, and at 8 percent of the colleges, black students graduated at the same rate (or higher) as white students.

The study lists the top and bottom performing institutions in terms of graduation rates for black students, and offers comparisons between colleges serving similar student populations.

Related: What happens when a college recruits black students others consider too risky?

One confusing but important finding is that that simply closing the racial achievement gap at each individual college would not be enough to ensure that black and white students graduate at the same rate overall. That’s because there are disproportionately so many more black students at colleges with abysmal graduation rates.

Blacks, like whites, graduate at much higher rates at competitive schools like the University of Virginia or Northwestern University. But only 6 percent of the students at those two universities are black. Unless more black students can enroll at better colleges, there will still be a gap nationally.

black college students

About 40 percent of all white students are enrolled at the most selective schools, which also tend to have the best graduation rates, compared with 25 percent of all black students. Meanwhile one in five black freshmen attend the least selective schools, which usually have fewer resources and lower graduation rates, while the same is true for fewer than one in ten white freshmen.

“When we talk about the equity gap, we have to also look at enrollment stratification,” said Nichols, which he says is a result of several factors, including unequal access to high-performing K-12 schools as well as a misconceptions about what indicates that a student is eligible or “ready” for more selective colleges and universities.

Related: Why more black students are enrolling in historically black colleges

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were not the focus of the Education Trust study, but they educate 20 percent of all first time black freshmen – and enrollment has been increasing.

“There’s a myth out there that HBCUs are inferior institutions,” said Nichols, “but if you look at the data, you come away with a very different idea of what’s happening.”

Overall, the graduation rate for black students at HBCUs is 32 percent versus 45 percent at the other 676 public and nonprofit four-year institutions in the study’s sample.

But when the authors compared the HBCUs with institutions that were serving similar student populations, HBCUs showed higher success rates.

Comparing institutions where between 40 percent and 75 percent of freshmen come from low-income families, the average black graduation rate at the HBCUs is 38 percent versus 32 percent for non-HBCUs.

In fact, at 100 percent of four-year HBCUs, at least 40 percent of freshmen are low-income, compared with 45 percent of non-HBCUs.

And while roughly half of HBCUs have a freshmen class that is 75 percent low-income, that is only true for one percent of the non-HBCUs.

Still, the authors note the overall graduation rate is low, and there is significant variation within HBCUs as well. North Carolina Central University has a graduation rate of 48 percent for black students, compared with 26 percent at Alabama State University even though the schools enroll similar students in terms of SAT scores and financial need. Clearly, what’s happening – or not happening – on campuses makes a difference in graduation success.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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